Are you experiencing fatigue, cold intolerance, brain fog, or palpitations? If so, it may be time to visit your doctor.

By Alyssa Brown
January 29, 2020

We've all heard of the thyroid—but what is it really? The butterfly-shaped endocrine gland is normally located in the lower front of the neck. According to the American Thyroid Association, a healthy thyroid produces hormones that help the body use energy, stay warm, and keep the brain, heart, muscles, and other organs working as they should. Here, Dr. Elizabeth Pearce of the American Thyroid Association explains symptoms that typically occur when the thyroid isn't functioning properly—which indicates that it's time to check in with your doctor.

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Symptoms of Hypothyroidism

According to Dr. Pearce, the classic symptoms of hypothyroidism—an underactive thyroid—may include fatigue, constipation, cold intolerance, irregular or heavy menses, brain fog, dry skin, or weight gain (note that much of the weight gain in hypothyroidism is likely due to water retention rather than an actual increase in fat mass). Hypothyroidism occurs in less than five percent of the American population aged 12 and older, and is more common in women than in men, with the prevalence increasing with age.

Symptoms of Hyperthyroidism

The classic symptoms of hyperthyroidism—an overactive thyroid—may include palpitations, anxiety, tremor, heat intolerance, irregular menses, fatigue, difficulty sleeping, or weight loss. This thyroid condition is less common: It occurs in about one percent of the American population. Experiencing any of the aforementioned individually, however, doesn't necessarily indicate a thyroid irregularity. "It's important to note that all of the symptoms of hypo- and hyperthyroidism are highly nonspecific; while all of these can be caused by thyroid dysfunction, each symptom can also be caused by disorders which are not related to the thyroid gland," she says.

Symptoms of Thyroid Nodules

People with thyroid nodules may notice a lump or swelling in the anterior neck. According to the American Thyroid Association, the vast majority of thyroid nodules are noncancerous, but should be evaluated. Dr. Pearce says, "Thyroid nodules are very common (up to 40-65% of older populations), but the vast majority of these do not cause any symptoms."

When to Have Your Levels Tested

"It's reasonable for anyone with symptoms that could be related to abnormal thyroid function to have blood testing performed. The screening test for both hyper- and hypothyroidism is a thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) test, which is both inexpensive and accurate," explains Dr. Pearce. "It is very important to note that if thyroid function testing is normal, other causes for the symptoms should be explored, since these symptoms are all highly nonspecific." Another reason to have a test performed regularly? A family history that tells of thyroid issues. "Thyroid disease often runs in families, so it’s also reasonable to check a TSH periodically if there is a known family history," she notes.

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